We are approaching the time when we hear the sad accounts of how colonies were lost during the winter.

If you are unfortunate to have this happen to you, do try to think of some reason why it happened. For example, at your final inspection last autumn (September or October), did you see a queen? Were there any eggs or signs of brood? If not, there is the probable answer. Or were the varroa levels high? This is another strong possible reason for colony failure during winter. There are, of course, many other reasons why a colony can fail, but I do think that it is important to try to think of the reason for the loss rather than simply accept it as ‘one of those things’. I remember some years ago hearing a supposedly experienced beekeeper on a National TV programme being asked if he had lost colonies during the last winter. His very casual reply was, “Only four.” (of about 20). Maybe they had deficient or unmated queens, but I would have thought that he would have expressed a view on why it had happened, for his own self-respect if nothing else. So, particularly new beekeepers, if you have lost a colony, have a look through last season’s records, and see if you can work out why it may have failed and seek other beekeepers’ ideas on the reasons for the loss.

I would welcome more thoughts on this. I have really been very puzzled for some time at what seems to me to be a significant increase in the number of winter colony losses in recent years.

Important reminder to all members for this time of year

The most likely time for colonies to starve out is during March (not midwinter), as the bees may well start their serious foraging by then, (especially if the weather is warm), and at the same time be starting to raise brood. For these reasons their stores will be very quickly depleted. The position could deteriorate rapidly if a warm dry day or two is followed by a sudden wet cold period. Now is the most important time to start keeping a careful check on every colony’s stores. This can be done by ‘hefting’ the hive, but only if the beekeeper is familiar, from past experience, with what a ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ hive feels like. The most reliable check of all is to lift frames to see if there are sufficient stores in the hive, but this must be done very quickly and paying attention to the air temperature. Feed at once if necessary but do not overfeed. This feeding may have to be done several times in small amounts at judged intervals. In the event of a sudden nectar flow, it is most important not to finish up with stored honey diluted with sugar (if sugar was used for this emergency feed), especially if you sell your honey. The local food inspector will not be pleased (and worse) if he/she finds this. This is a pretty fine balance to manage at this time of year.

Geoff Cooper

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